Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

dragons & Buddhists & magic ~ oh my!

I’m crazy about dragons.  It’s at least partly because I was born in the year of the dragon (a very auspicious year, just in case you were wondering). And it’s also because I was raised in Southeast Asia, where dragons have a far richer and better-known mythology.

When I was little, not many kids talked about dragons. Me? I had the little kids’ version of the dragon dance set, complete w/ vivid dragon head. Other little girls played house. By the time I was 9 I was creating one-act plays that involved dragons. Sometimes I was the dragon, rarely the dragon killer. Usually, as I recall, I sent the dragon packing — not wanting, even as a child, to kill it. Now, many years later, I have dragons scattered through the house: a small stuffed toy here, a hand-puppet there, a music box elsewhere. A teapot,  a silver pendant. The drawing for a tattoo  I want to get this fall.

In Chinese mythology, the dragon is fearless. A leader, articulate, and — when endowed with five toes instead of three — royal. There is a saying (another possible tattoo :)): humans once were dragons. I thought that as a child, and the non-rational shadows of my East-meets-West brain still believe it may be true. Once I realised I was a Dragon child, I was content: nothing would harm me :).

Which leads me to legends, and mythology, and how important it is. As a child, I read every bit of mythology I could find. Our amah — the lovely Chị Bốn — would take us to the Việtnamese American Association library, and I would check out books on Eastern myths & legends, books on Greco-Roman myths & legends, books on whatever I could find about magical creatures & stories and cultures. To me, they were the best possible reading.

I like to think, now, that my reading about dragons, and the ghosts under the bed (they had sharp, hungry teeth, I was told by Chị Ba, the baby amah ~ it would be years before I got up at night w/out thinking about those ghosts…), prepared me to better accept the Buddhist/ Taoist/ Confucian cosmologies they lived in. Dragons were as real to me as dinosaurs, perhaps more so. In the East, pictures of dragons adorn everything — they are lucky. When’s the last time you saw a dinosaur on multiple business logos?

So for me, dragons remain a possibility. No more unlikely than a velociraptor, I’m just waiting for a skeleton to be discovered. And I’m okay with that particular wrinkle in my brain. After all ~ what’s life w/out some magic? The kind that dragons bring. On fiery breath, and even (at least in some versions) on wings…

 

 

life dogs ~

I bought Mayuree as a puppy from a woman in Bangkok. She was a South African-bred Afghan hound, as sweet-tempered as honey. Her name meant ‘female peacock’ in Thai. But she was never much of a preener. Always more of a curl-her-long-legs-in-your-lap-and-nest kind of girl.

Each year, books are published about life dogs: dogs you remember forever, dogs who change your life. Summer’s a great time to curl up with a writer’s stories of such a dog. Stories of a dog that becomes the internal image for ‘dog’ in your head. The picture your brain (& heart) call up when you think ‘dog.’ Some of us are lucky enough to have more than one such dog. And some of  us share a life dog w/ the others in our family. My family’s life dog was Mayuree.

When I first bought her, I was visiting my family in Bangkok, taking a break from college and a life that had no real goals. Mayuree became my passion. I bought books on Afghans. Checked them out of the library. Read up on Afghans and their history (they hunted in pairs & packs — hare, wolf, jackal, even snow leopards!). Brushed Mayuree and walked her and generally loved her. She had been raised in a one-story house, so our open stairway literally made her shake. Since my bedroom was on the 2nd floor, I had to carry her upstairs & downstairs to feed her, walk her, take her outside. Everything.  All 40 leggy pounds of her.

Then I went back to Oklahoma to go to school, and left her w/ my mother & sisters. She became my mother’s dog, but was always a family dog at heart. I missed her as only a homesick kid — even one of 20 — can miss her dog. But I had a tiny shotgun apartment in my great-grandmother’s house, too poor to even own a phone, and I couldn’t take her with me. From then on, she lived w/ my mother, father, & sisters.

My mother even managed to graduate Mayuree from obedience class.  A word here to Afghan novices: Afghans are more like large cats than dogs. They don’t care about pleasing you. Rumour from people who don’t know is that they’re stupid. Nope. Just absolutely secure. They can be bribed, or made curious enough to do something. Or competitive enough. But they know you love them, and most aren’t people pleasers. For my mother to get Mayuree through obedience school was no small thing for either of them. :)

Mayuree taught me so many things. She was the first dog I met who loved everyone in her family. She wasn’t a one-person dog, but that never made any of us feel ‘lesser.’ She had a heart big enough for everyone. She was good with children, and only ran off when bored. A 6′ fence was a gentle leap to her, and she could run like coursing hounds are famous for: fast and faster. Which meant we’d hear from folks miles away who became one of her rest spots. Two miles was nothing. The people at the clinic where we took her — the vet number on her tag — soon knew us by name. ‘Mayuree’s family.’ Even the people at Animal Aid — another popular phone call for lost animals — knew her, at one point. She loved to run almost as much as she loved us.

Love isn’t a non-renewable resource. If anything, we should be studying it as totally self-generated energy. Mayuree could love anything that loved her back. You didn’t even have to start the cycle ~ she assumed you loved her until proved otherwise. Or until she figured out you were a cat… (at which point you became prey…)

I know it’s a hokey pop culture meme, but I want to be as good as Mayuree. I want to love first, not wait for folks to like me. I want them to feel as welcome as a dog dead for many years once made me feel: important, special, necessary. Because intellectually, I believe this. I do think we’re all important, special, & necessary. But when it comes to living it? That life dog of ours could teach me a few things. Maybe now I’m ready to learn…

invertebrate time…

I’m one of those people who need down time. Not simply distraction time, like reading — although tI need that, too. :) But mindless time spent staring out windows, or at birds, or the blue prairie sky. Time w/ out structure — a kind of  time w/out skeletal framework. Invertebrate time — both it and me…

This past weekend was a mashup of structure, commitment, passion, and prairie sky. I was at a writing retreat — one of my favourite places in the world. This one, held for several years that I’ve been lucky enough to be invited, is at the only Bnedictine cathedral west of the Mississippi. Old red brick, Mary-blue walls in the Basilica, copper roofs on several of the low, graceful buildings. And everywhere, flowers: echinacea buzzing with bees, butterfly bush fluttering with wings, phlox and impatiens and hollyhocks and ipomea. Grandma flowers. Familiar and comforting.

When I walked back in to the room, I thought of how much I love bugs. I do, I confess. Bees, worms, moths & butterflies. Crickets, cicadas, even (some!) spiders. They fascinate me — working together, quite often. Making silk & honey…

And I love sitting outside. There’s far too little of it at a retreat where you’re the editor. Instead, you’re reading manuscripts, drafts, starts. Finding markets. But there were small chunks of time when I could sit outside, somnolent in the warm June sun. When I could become my own butterfly, wings opening & closing. And what I realised is I need this regression. I need to return to my invertebrate roots.

Because when I sit still, mind steeped in late spring light, all the shadowy spaces of my life are illuminated. They’re cleansed and wrapped in warmth and healed. All I have to do is breathe. Which is, when you think about it, what invertebrates do. Breathe.

And it’s what meditation suggests ~ breathe. In & out & in & out. Just following the breath. And that’s enough. So it’s summer, for most of us, and here’s my recommendation: make like an invertebrate. Sit in the sun & breathe. Who knows what may happen…?

death & loss & grief & rites of passage ~

My cousin’s son died this past weekend. Killed instantly, with his best friend, in a tragic car accident. He was 25.

A funeral is no celebration of life when the dead are young. Their lives cut short by the snick snick snick of the third sister’s scissors — Atropos, the eldest sister Fate. I dread this one.

He was a beautiful baby, I remember. And grew into a handsome, bright-eyed, laughing man. And Wednesday (Wednesday’s child is full of woe) we will gather, at a building wreathed w/ plaster work, and try to make sense of his loss. There is so little sense to dead children.

A funeral is supposed to bring comfort, give closure. And allow for the grieving to come together to celebrate the passage of a life away from the living. Christians  — many of my family — will wrap themselves in a belief that they will see Daris again. Even my (nominally) Buddhist sister believes that the two boys — best friends in life, best friends together in their tragic deaths — are somewhere together. And that they know this. I take no such comfort.

Some Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Others believe in a kind of universalism, that we become part of divinity when we die. And some believe in nothing, that there is nothing after death. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I’d like to think that because spirit is energy, and energy never dies, Daris & Dex still laugh, somewhere.

On  Wednesday, however, I know that no one will be thinking of laughter. Only of our great grief at the loss of a son, brother, cousin, nephew, grandson. Friend. Only of how short this much-loved young man’s life was, and how unfair it seems.

What I do believe in is the power of breathing for those we love, when they hurt. Wednesday I’ll be doing just that. Breathing. Slowly. Trying to transform great grief into some kind of comfort…

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